AUGUSTA — Last year, Maine turned in one of the lowest-scoring applications for Race to the Top, missing a chance at $75 million in federal money for education reform.

Now, state officials are hoping for a better result as they prepare to apply for the new Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

While the previous initiative offered $4 billion to states to reform kindergarten through 12th grade education, the Early Learning Challenge will distribute a lesser amount — $500 million — and focus only on early childhood education.

The application isn’t yet available, but Maine is among 36 states and the District of Columbia that have signaled they plan to apply, said Liz Utrep, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

The application will probably be released later this month, and all the money has to be “out the door” by Dec. 31, Utrep said.

Successful applicants will be selected for “coordinating early learning programs while increasing access and raising standards,” she said.

Maine should be well positioned to apply to the Early Learning Challenge because initiatives already under way here complement the federal government’s priorities, said Jaci Holmes, federal and state legislative liaison at the Maine Department of Education.

Holmes said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have met numerous times to examine the state’s programs and how they can be enhanced through the Early Learning Challenge. Officials from both departments are meeting at least once a week, she said.

There are two priorities that states must address in their applications.

* Applying educational standards to early learning programs and assessing all students entering public kindergarten by 2014-15.

A work group is updating Maine’s early learning guidelines — first written in 2004 — to reflect the national Common Core standards adopted last year, and a bill carried over from the last legislative session would require universal kindergarten assessements, Holmes said.

* States must increase the number of early care and education centers participating in the state’s quality rating system and to make high-quality programs more accessible to high-need children.

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services administers Quality for ME, a four-tier rating system for child cares, and Holmes said state officials are looking at how many programs are at each level of the system and how many children they’re serving.

“In both of these priorities, we’ve been doing this as a state for several years,” Holmes said. “This will just encourage the enhancement of those quality factors.”

States can earn additional points by including all early care and education programs in the quality rating system; aligning early learning standards with kindergarten through third grade standards; and encouraging private sector support.

Maine is addressing those points, Holmes said, but the state’s Early Learning Challenge application will focus the most attention on the top two priorities.

“We want to do a really thorough job on the priorities we are applying for and don’t want to set ourselves to such a high level that we’ll be stretched,” she said. “We want to do the priorities in depth and do them well.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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